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Some Thoughts on Cups, the Extreme Male Brain Theories of Autism and Genderless Society

By Gbollard @gbollard
Recently, I was unpacking the dishwasher and putting cups away while thinking about how we chose the cups and mugs and how my wife and I have very different thought processes when it comes to buying them.
I was wondering if this was a male/female difference, an autism/neurotypical difference or just a Gavin/Joanne difference. Somehow, I got to reflecting on the whole "extreme male brain" theory of autism and why I dislike that model more than ever.  ... and then of course, I started thinking about how people escape these gender stereotypes.

The art of choosing a mug

My wife used to choose cups in sets of four or preferably six. They'd all have the same pattern (or at least they'd all be related in some way).  Often this pattern would match the walls or benchtop in our kitchen.
Sometimes the mugs she'd choose would come with their own stand which meant that they annoyingly took up space on the bench or they'd have a set of special hooks on the wall which needed to be mounted.  If one of the cups was broken, the set would never be the same, there'd always be a missing space on their stand.
Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society
When I choose cups, I like to get things which are completely different, indvidual. If I do get a set, for example a doctor who themed set, they would be collected one by one and (and yes, there's plenty of gaps).
Things aren't missing because they're broken, they're missing because I haven't found them yet -- Somehow I feel that's more inclusive.  There's room to grow and become part of the family but it doesn't mean that the family is incomplete. 
I get cups that contain statements that make me smile or pictures that I relate to. The cups I buy generally belong to someone. Coffee cups that is.
Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society
As for tumblers (glasses), my concerns are in the areas of strength, stackability and dishwasher fitting (tall cups do not fit in the dishwasher).  If a cup is plain, then it needs to be functional. -- and of course, if a cup is part of a set in which each cup is a different colour, then they need to be stacked in proper rainbow order.

Venus and Mars

One of the more common theories about the differences between men and women is explored in John Gray's book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus".  It's a great book and I've referenced it many times in this blog over the years.
In a nutshell, it states that;
  • Women are more emotive while men are more tactile
  • When it comes to problems, Women prefer to talk about things (and emote) while men simply want to fix them.

You can see this approach in our collections of cups. My wife is concerned with overall harmony, how the cup fits into the "family" of the house and how it becomes a part of the collective. I, on the other hand, am much more concerned with purpose, stackability, usefulness and even signage.
In a perfect world, where we respect each other's opinions and differences, these different approaches are complimentary and can significantly improve our decision making. Unfortunately however, most relationships are dominated (at least in certain areas) by one member of the couple; and this can lead to conflict instead. 

Male brained theories. -- Simon Baron Cohen

It makes sense that clinical psychologists, such as Simon Baron Cohen would have looked at these differences in neurotypical people and applied them to people with autism. He would have found that the special interests that many people on the spectrum have, tend to skew our decision-making process.
The sensory hoops that we often have to jump through; for example considering the crowds, smells and noises at a shopping center before we decide to go out, also affect our decision making. Ultimately, these challenges make snap decisions quite risky for people on the spectrum.  It leads us to make decisions which are more considered and logical.
To an observer, they might appear more "male-brained" - but they're not. 

Why is the male-brained theory problematic?

The main issue with the male-brained theory is that it's far too simple and that it only looks at visible surface attributes. In classifying activity by gender, it also becomes offensive to both men and women.
The extreme male brained theory supposes that men are stronger when it comes to mathematical and spatial reasoning and that men are more able to see the details in complex systems.  It suggests that women are better at emotive concepts and multi-tasking day-to-day chores and children.
It's easy to see why the male-brained theory is offensive to women, it promotes the assumption that unless you're a geeky/nerdy female (ie: on the spectrum), you're not cut out to be a scientist. It supports traditional views the females belong at home with their families and in emotional support roles.
Essentially, the naming of the male-brained theory pushes women back into the corner they've spent the last few decades trying to escape from. 

Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society

While these pictures are amusing and sometimes feel accurate, they're ultimately unhelpful in that they promote and reinforce gender stereotypes.


It's harder to see why this theory is problematic for men. After all, most men would be happy to be identified as "men".  Unfortunately, the damage is once again in the definition of the stereotype. Not only does the theory promote the idea of male savants and mathematical prowess but it also assumes that people, particularly men, on the autism spectrum are hamstrung in terms of empathy.
This is not true on a number of levels. For a start, it's very clear that not everyone on the spectrum is great at maths and science. Even males who are quite competent academically, may be competent in English, religion, geography or computing without necessarily being good at maths.
More importantly however, the male-brained theory pushes men (and women on the spectrum) back into a corner in which they've been trapped for decades; that of the unsympathetic, unfeeling male who cannot empathize with those around him. 

The Rise of Ungendered People

One of the more interesting developments of modern times is the rise of "ungendered" people. I can't pretend to know a great deal about this -- there are plenty of much more expert people out there, but from what I can gather, this isn't always happening for sexual reasons.
True, a larger than average portion of ungendered people seem to show bisexual, gay/lesbian or even transgender tendencies. I don't think that this necessarily equates with being ungendered. People become ungendered for a variety of different reasons. 
I believe that there's at least a reasonable social component to being ungendered. That some of the rules and stereotypes perpetuated in our society have left people feeling like they can't belong to either of the main descriptive genders.  That by trying to force others to fit into a set of traits that don't apply to them, we've essentially ostracized them from society.
Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society

It's especially concerning to me because the proportion of ungendered people on the spectrum, seems to be noticeably higher than it is among neurotypicals. We need to be doing more to help our people to feel accepted in society. 

What can we do?

There's a few things that we can do to make this world a better place for everyone;
  • Educate ourselves: I've deliberately written this post "off the top of my head" without looking up the language of the LGBTQIA+ community. I've since realized that I should have been using Non-Binary instead of ungendered (I think).  I also have friends that I could have asked. I'm hoping that my choice of words makes it clear how new I am to this (and I'm very happy to be corrected in the comments).
    I'm not alone. It's okay that so many people don't know the right words to use. We're going to make mistakes. Hopefully as the new words filter through society, we'll all start to learn and improve. It's up to our LGBTQIA+ friends to teach us patiently and it's up to us to make the effort to listen, learn and improve.
  • Stop trying to put everything into neat little boxes: Just as the male-brained theory is no longer relevant to autism, so too, my cups theory is not about gender. It's about differences between individuals. Labels and boxes are perfect for getting treatment or funding (and sometimes for getting a bit of respect due to numbers) but they alone can't describe everyone. Instead of arguing about identity-first language, (person with autism vs autistic person), we should really be pushing for individual-first language; "fred".
    The same goes for gender labels, we keep labeling people in extreme terms; talking about hot and cold without allowing for various degrees of warm.
  • Stop making it all about Sex: I've learned that a transgender person isn't necessarily gay and that people who become non-binary don't simply flip once from one gender to another but may lean towards one gender one day and another gender on a different day. 
    For some reason, whenever I see a person who isn't on board with these modern ideals (usually bible or equivalent "holy book" in hand), they're overly concerned with sex and genitalia (or toileting, or the effects on parenting) instead of the individual and their thoughts and feelings. 
We've obviously got a long way to go but I'm pleased to feel like I'm taking my first steps towards a greater understanding. True equality between the sexes means letting go of our preconceived notions of male and female traits. Being gender neutral doesn't have to be the answer but it's okay if it is.
To all my LGBTQIA+ friends, I'm grateful for your understanding and continued teaching. I'm learning so much from you. Hopefully I haven't offended you all with this post but if I have, my apologies are unreservedly offered. 

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